How MTN is energising Africa with 5,000 new rural sites by 2020

MTN’s ambitious three-tiered rural roll-out programme will accelerate the adoption of a modern, connected life across Africa

Read this article to learn:

  • Why MTN are targeting 5,000 new rural sites by end of 2020
  • Details of MTN’s RFP for turnkey partners to delivery rural connectivity
  • What sorts of structures and power are expected to be deployed
  • The importance of low-maintenance sites for ultra-ultra rural sites
  • How MTN Group plan to inspire other MNOs

Africa is home to the world’s youngest and fastest growing population. These demographics converge to make it a fantastic telecoms investment destination, as the continent’s cities are seeing a boom in telecoms towers – delivering voice and data to millions of people.

However, the continent is still characterised by large populations who exist outside of urban areas, often very far away from cell sites. Driven by the belief that everyone deserves the benefits of a modern and connected life, MTN Group issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) for turnkey partners to assist in building 5,000 new rural, ultra-rural, and ultra-ultra rural sites across all MTN operations. These new rural sites will extend MTN’s network and bring the benefits of voice, data, SMS, and digital services to more people.

TowerXchange sat down with Navindran Naidoo, MTN Group Executive, Network Design & Planning at MTN’s offices in Johannesburg to discuss the programme.

TowerXchange: Can you briefly describe how MTN’s approach to rural connectivity will change through this new programme?

Navindran Naidoo, Group Executive, Network Design & Planning, MTN Group:

MTN Group intends to roll-out 5,000 new rural sites by the end of 2020, with an even greater roll-out expected after this initial mandate. As we are looking to increase the number of our rural sites, the way in which we are managing the build is different too. We have issued an RFP, covering the three different classifications for the sites we plan to build. These sites are classified as: rural, ultra-rural and ultra-ultra rural. 

We are looking for turnkey partners to help us serve these markets with innovative solutions that enable us to bring connectivity to previously underserved locations. This programme spans across all of MTN’s operations.

TowerXchange: What has brought on the decision to change MTN’s approach to rural site build out?

Navindran Naidoo, Group Executive, Network Design & Planning, MTN Group:

We are looking to address the infrastructure issues that inhibit Africans from gaining access to the benefits of a modern connected life. 

We have a vision of leading the delivery of a bold new digital world to our customers and our rural build programme demonstrates that leadership. This isn’t driven only by commercial principals. We do not anticipate that most of our ultra-ultra rural sites will become significant sources of revenue, however MTN sees a social responsibility to connect these areas of the continent.

TowerXchange: There is an RFP out at the moment to support your rural build out programme, can you outline the key partners you’re looking for?

Navindran Naidoo, Group Executive, Network Design & Planning, MTN Group:

The RFP is an attempt to source full turnkey vendors for our different categories: rural, ultra-rural and ultra-ultra rural. The RFP should close in September. 

We are interested in the role that independent telecom tower companies (towercos) can play in enhancing rural connectivity. Leasing space on towers could be an important enabler of investment in rural and ultra-rural areas. However, the leasing model is unlikely to be operable in ultra-ultra rural areas where low ARPUs will be unable to support more than one operator. Sharing infrastructure is an option for reducing the cost of roll-out and opex too. 

I cannot comment on how the pricing structure and economics of the sites will work, as we are waiting to see what is proposed in the responses to our RFP.

MTN’s rural RFP technical requirements

TowerXchange: How do you define rural, ultra-rural and ultra-ultra-rural sites? How will your site design and service level differ in each category?

Navindran Naidoo, Group Executive, Network Design & Planning, MTN Group:

There are a few ways we identify and categorise sites, such as determining the distance from the urban areas we already serve. We can use satellite imagery to complement that and identify the best areas to serve, as we cannot rely on census information in these areas. 

For backhaul we expect to use a variety of technologies. In rural sites we have specified microwave backhaul as these sites should not be too far away from our existing network. For ultra-ultra-rural sites, we have specified optimised Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) backhaul. Ultra-rural sites will see a mixture of the two solutions. 

The towers will also differ from site to site. At normal rural sites, shareable macro towers will be used; at ultra-rural sites we expect shorter towers of between 10m and 20m. While at ultra-ultra rural sites, we are leaving the details of the structure to our vendors to propose depending on what they think will work best.

We don’t only need sites which have a low-cost bill of materials, but we need structures with minimal maintenance and a quick implementation timeline. It should take up to a week to erect a rural site, but our ultra-ultra rural sites should be complete in a day or two

We don’t only need sites which have a low-cost bill of materials, but we need structures with minimal maintenance and a quick implementation timeline. It should take up to a week to erect a rural site, but our ultra-ultra rural sites should be complete in a day or two. 

Site availability will differ to what we expect for our core sites. At rural sites we are proposing > 98% availability; at ultra-rural sites > 95%; and we will wait to see what our vendors propose for ultra-ultra rural sites. At these most rural sites we need to keep maintenance and repair visits to a minimum, so while we expect to use solar power and battery back-ups at our rural and ultra-rural sites, we may opt for solar-only sites at our most remote sites. Eliminating diesel generators cuts maintenance and refuelling, cutting batteries from our most remote sites further simplifies the maintenance of the sites and eliminates sites going down due to battery theft. 

Most rural sites, with their larger towers and more demanding initial specification could be upgraded, but ultra rural and ultra-ultra rural would require complete rebuilds. But that would be an excellent problem to have.

MTN’s history of tower sales 

TowerXchange: You’re rolling out both 2G and 3G at these sites, how important is offering internet in addition to voice and text?

Navindran Naidoo, Group Executive, Network Design & Planning, MTN Group:

We think offering data and internet connectivity is essential. Even at our ultra-ultra rural sites we want to be able to offer at least 3G levels of connectivity. 

Our CHASE programme helps us focus on what matters for our users: Coverage, Handsets, Affordability, Services and Education. We have to ensure sufficient data coverage in low-income areas; affordability of handsets and data services; bundle together the correct services for our customers; and enhance digital literacy and awareness so that people can make the most of the services we deliver. 

TowerXchange: 5,000 sites a year is a massive programme. What are the KPIs you’ll be measuring to see if the first sites are effective?

Navindran Naidoo, Group Executive, Network Design & Planning, MTN Group:

I wouldn’t want to put a specific KPI to these sites, but we are not going in blind. We have a number of existing rural sites from previous programmes of rural investment and they are exceeding expectations. They aren’t generating a huge amount of traffic or revenue, but they are doing well. They are not high capacity sites like a metro area, but they are clearly servicing a need. We foresee people in rural areas taking up all the other services MTN offers in the future.

TowerXchange: Do you think other MNOs will follow your example? What advice would you have for them?

Navindran Naidoo, Group Executive, Network Design & Planning, MTN Group:

I hope other MNOs will follow our example. There are big parts of Africa which have absolutely no connectivity and MTN believes that it is our duty to bring everyone in Africa the benefits of a connected life.

 

Navindran Naidoo will be discussing MTN’s rural rollout, and their other network requirements, at the 7th Annual TowerXchange Meetup Africa, taking place at the Sandton Convention Centre, Johannesburg or 8-9 October 2019. For agenda details and to register, please click here.

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